Repentance: The heart of the Gospel

Homily for the XV Sunday Through the Year

Parish Church of St. John the Baptist

12 July 2015

God is able to bring light out of even the darkest of situations, and we saw an example of that recently in the church shooting tragedy in South Carolina. At a court hearing a few days after the shooting, the family members of the victims expressed their forgiveness of the shooter. The sister of one victim said, “I acknowled­ge that I am very angry. But one thing that [my sister] always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.”

These courageous people, though, did not only express their forgiveness of the shooter, but also called him to repentance. Another relative of a victim said, “I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”

We have here a terrific example of a credible witness. Their witness and preaching is credible because it follows an unexpected act of loving forgiveness. Their desire for the shooter to repent was motivated by the same charity that lead them to forgive him.

This story of recent events comes to mind because of the mission of the Apostles in the Gospel passage appointed by Holy Mother Church for today. The Apostles are given power by Christ over demons and sickness and sent out to spread the Good News. That they do not take food, sack, or money is a sign that they are to rely completely on God. And St. Mark sums up their missionary activity: “They preached repentance.”

This summary of the Apostle’s missionary activity could be surprising to us. Why “they preached repentance?” Why not, “They preached love,” or “They preached redemption,” or “They preached salvation?”

The answer is this: that repentance is not the end of the Apostles’ and the Church’s work – that is assuredly the eternal salvation of men and women. But repentance is the beginning of how we attain to the salvation offered to us by God. Forgiveness without repentance from our sins would be too cheap, salvation without conversion would be inauthentic or phony, and love without turning away from our wrongdoing is no love at all.

To love, truly to love, is to will the good of another. It is to honestly and earnestly seek what is best for him or her. It is not just a wish, but sets about to accomplish the other’s good. In this way, we can see how the call to repentance by the families of the victims of the South Carolina church shooting were loving. Their call to repentance is not motivated by selfishness or revenge (since what good could it do for them?) but out of a desire for his eternal good, his salvation. They sincerely will the good of another.

When we take up the message of the Apostles to repent from our sins, we fulfill the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle: “He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him.” God wants us to be perfect – he has chosen us even before He created the world to be holy. Just think about that: even before God created the world, He knew who you would be, and He desired that you be holy like Him so that you might spend all eternity with Him in Heaven. God want us to be holy because of His infinite love for us.

St. Paul continues: “In love He destined us for adoption to Himself through Jesus Christ.” Holiness, being like Jesus is our destiny’ it is the end for which God created us. It is how He wants to fulfill our human nature.

There are two principle obstacles that tend to arise in us in the pursuit of holiness, two lies that prevent us from embarking on this adventure of living in God’s love or from faithfully carrying it out. The first is that it is not possible, and the second is that it is not worth it.

So often we can fall into the trap of thinking that sin is an unavoidable part of human life. How many times has each of us said, “I’m only human” as an excuse for a sin that we’ve committed. I know that I have made this excuse on many occasions. But this is not what it means to be human! The truest humans of all are Jesus Christ and His Mother Mary, both free of sin. Striving to be holy does not mean being less human, but on the contrary, it means being more human. It means fulfilling what God made us to be, which is the surest way to happiness.

The other obstacle we face, the other lie we are often tempted to believe, is that holiness isn’t worth it. In this regard, there is a tragic misconception in our culture that equates holiness with dullness. This could not be farther from the truth! We need only to think of people like St. John Paul II, Bl. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, or Pope Francis to see examples of holy people from our own day who are anything but dull. The worry is that in our own lives, if we are holy, if we reject the cheap thrills offered to us by our culture as being better than holiness, we will be dull and will lose out on all the fun.

This temptation, though, is a rejection of who we are. We were made in the image and likeness of God, made to share His eternal happiness, both forever in heaven and even here on Earth. Pursuing holiness means rejecting certain behaviors that are offered to us by our culture as fulfilling, but I think that, if we are really honest, we can admit that those things turn out to be fleeting and ultimately leave us feeling empty and alone. Holiness is just the opposite of that. Doing what we know is right, having been taught by the Church and being guided by a well-formed conscience, gives us precisely the opposite – it might not always make us happy, but in the end it will make us content.

Repentance, as I said earlier, is the beginning of this journey to holiness, the beginning of our acceptance of Christ’s merciful love offered to us from the Cross. His love is precisely the sort of love that seeks out the good of another, the truest love. His death on the Cross was what opened to us the possibility of living in His grace, both in this life and in Heaven forever. And if He has done so much, we have to do our part as well.

That need for us to “do our part” is why the Sacrament of Penance, confession, is so important, and why it is necessary for us to confess each and every mortal or grave sin that we have committed after Baptism, and why it is good for us to come to confession regularly even if we have not committed any mortal sins.

For my part, as a newly-ordained priest, I want to make a pledge to you: that I will be available to you as often as possible to hear your confessions. There is almost no time that I will not be willing to drop whatever I am doing to hear your confession, whether it’s before Mass or after Mass, or even during Mass if another priest is offering the Mass and you happen to see me in the church, at a dinner, at a party, or around town, I always have a little purple stole in my pocket, which is my way of saying that I’m always ready to hear a confession. In fact, next Sunday, I’m going to make sure that I’m available before all the Masses in the confessional. We will have a missionary priest visiting us, so during the 9:30 and 11:30 Masses, which he will be celebrating, I will be in the confessional during Mass for anyone who would like to come. Whether it’s been one week or 40 years since you’ve been, the Lord will be so happy you came. Jesus even pardoned those who crucified Him from the Cross – there is no sin that He will not forgive.

St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, was described by his contemporaries as the “prisoner of the confessional.” Since we are supposed to imitate the saints, that means you need to make me and all priests prisoners of the confessional as well. Never feel bad about asking a priest for confession, never feel like you’re inconveniencing him. Most likely, that feeling is a tool of the devil to get you to make excuses not to go.

I should offer one caveat: As a newly-ordained priest, I can’t claim to be an expert at this yet. I might not have the perfect advice for you or always speak with the compassion that I would like to have and that I know God has for all sinners. Sometimes I get scared or intimidated by the reality of what I’m doing in the confessional, which is a great and grave responsibility. Sometimes too I might need to ask some questions, to help make sure I understand what is going on in your life and to make sure that you walk out of the confessional with a clean slate, since all grave sins must be confessed both in kind and in number. If I do that it’s not because I want to interrogate you or want to make you feel bad about your confession – it is a real and sincere desire to help you. So I want to ask too that you will pray for me that I might be a good confessor who will always imitate God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness.

I have been a priest for only a little over a month now, but I can say without hesitation that hearing confessions has easily been one of the best parts of my priesthood so far. It is an amazing privilege for me to speak those words of Christ, those words that always bring such joy and comfort to my own heart when I go to confession, “I absolve you from your sins.” The most singularly surprising joy of my priesthood so far has been the beauty of seeing God’s grace transform people’s lives and the humility of those who come to confess their sins, and I thank you for helping me to experience that, and I hope that you are able to share in that joy in going to confession.

I will leave you with the words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, at his first public appearance following the night of his election: “God never tires of pardoning us, it is we who tire of asking for his pardon.” May we never grow tired of asking for His pardon in Confession.